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[BLANTYRE] The arrival in Malawi of a team of US climate researchers has raised hopes among officials in the country that oil reserves will one day be found under Lake Malawi. The researchers will soon begin drilling the bottom of the lake as part of a study on tropical climate shifts in sub-Saharan Africa.

The team will extract mud samples from Lake Malawi for studies of tropical climate, human evolution and the formation of the Great Rift Valley.

But on arrival in Malawi last week, team leader Christopher Scholz was invited by Davis Katsonga, minister of mines and natural resources, to answer questions about the potential for chance discoveries of oil. Katsonga, other officials and mineral prospectors wanted to know what Scholz would do if his team stumbled on hidden reserves.

Scholz, from the earth science department of Syracuse University, United States, explained that his team would cease all drilling activities if they found signs of oil or gas, as prospecting is not part of the team's mission.

"We're aware that there could be potential [for oil] under Lake Malawi, but our mission requires that we stay away from hard layers," said Scholz. "Once we detect something heavier than methane, we'll stop the drilling."

Scholz further dashed the authorities' hopes when he added that next month's drilling will not reach that depths at which gas and oil are usually formed.

The government’s director of geological surveys, Leonard Kalindekafe, says preliminary research on Lake Malawi suggests that oil and gas have not yet formed under the lake.

"But this does not close the argument of whether or not we have oil," says Kalindekafe, who has participated in joint research missions with Miami University and other institutions looking for oil. "The potential is there but nobody has found the evidence."

Kalindekafe told SciDev.Net that the basis for optimism is that the age and structure of Lake Malawi's sediments suggest they could harbour oil. He added that evidence of oil has been found in the past in other Rift Valley lakes, such as Uganda's Lake Albert.

A lack of funding is preventing Malawi from embarking on an intensive search for oil, says Kalindekafe.

Katsonga urged Malawi's geological survey department to make use of Scholz's results, which he said offer immense opportunities for exploration and scientific discovery.

"I know that the aim of the project is not to explore for oil and gas," said Katsonga. "However, I realise that there could be some hints on the oil potential for Lake Malawi."

According to Scholz, the drilling exercise aims to obtain a continuous high-resolution record of the tropical climate in Africa over the past million years.

The findings could contribute to understanding tropical climate change, fluctuations in the depth of Lake Malawi, and patterns of human evolution in the Rift Valley.

The US$2.4 million Lake Malawi project, jointly funded by the US National Science Foundation and Scientific Drilling International, will begin in the next 30 days. Samples will be taken at Usisya in Nkhata Bay, Senga Bay in Salima and Chilumba in Karonga.

Scholz's team is conducting similar studies in Basutwi, a small crater lake in Ghana.